Poetry in mo­tion

Reg­u­lar Bird Watch­ing con­trib­u­tor Rosa­mond Richard­son has pro­duced a book that demon­strates her love of bird­watch­ing and frus­tra­tion with Man’s im­pact on the world

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents -

BW con­trib­u­tor Rosa­mond Richard­son’s new book de­clares her love for birds and na­ture

ROSA­MOND RICHARD­SON came to bird­watch­ing late. Per­haps that’s why she’s so pas­sion­ate about birds – any birds – and the ef­fect they can have on your life. Per­haps it’s why she’s also an­gry, and frus­trated, about Man’s im­pact on the nat­u­ral world, and our stub­born re­fusal to learn from our mis­takes. Those emo­tions suf­fuse her new book, Wait­ing For The Al­bino Dun­nock. Her writ­ing – per­sonal, ele­giac and ex­ist­ing in that space where prose and poetry col­lide – will be fa­mil­iar to long-term read­ers of Bird Watch­ing, but here it’s shaped into a pow­er­ful ar­gu­ment for watch­ing birds for their own sake. Nowa­days, that means watch­ing her own cot­tage gar­den in north Es­sex, and the sur­round­ing coun­try­side, but the vi­tal spark came in 2009, at Myce­nae, in Greece, on a walk in the hills look­ing for wild tor­toises. A friend pointed out bird af­ter bird, in­clud­ing a Wood­chat Shrike, and that en­counter proved to be epiphanic. As the book ex­plains, Rosa­mond found her­self re­dis­cov­er­ing an old love – nat­u­ral his­tory – and find­ing a new one – birds. Born in Ox­ford and brought up in Cam­bridge, she says her dream was al­ways to live in a cot­tage in the woods. A cot­tage in a quiet ru­ral vil­lage is rea­son­ably close, but it was time spent liv­ing in the sort of arable desert that so much of low­land Bri­tain has be­come that held the roots of her book’s qui­etly in­sis­tent ar­gu­ment. “Lots of Cam­bridgeshire can be a night­mare for bird­ers. What you see there is such a mur­der­ous way of farm­ing. “I think eight years or so liv­ing in the ‘grain belt’ stim­u­lated my love of birds. The frus­tra­tion of that has made me pas­sion­ate about them.” Be­fore that Greek en­counter, Rosa­mond’s main in­ter­ests in the nat­u­ral world were botan­i­cal, as the au­thor of books on wild flow­ers, and or­ganic cook­ing and food. “Hedgerow Cook­ery was the first book I wrote. It was trig­gered by Richard Mabey’s Food For Free. I started to find my own recipes and dis­cov­ered that I loved it”, she says. Af­ter the suc­cess of that 1980 book, she co­p­re­sented a BBC2 se­ries, Dis­cov­er­ing Hedgerows (an­other book ac­com­pa­nied it), and be­came a cam­paigner on var­i­ous en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. “It all starts in the soil – poi­son the land and de­plete the soil and the prob­lems start. Ef­fec­tively, mankind has been en­gaged in one big chem­i­cal ex­per­i­ment. When you go some­where like Lord Melchett’s Court­yard Farm, in Nor­folk, on a sum­mer’s day, and see all the wild flow­ers as they should be, it’s like walk­ing into a lost Eden. Or at Wood­wal­ton Fen, where you can see an en­tire ecol­ogy as it should be.” The book, Wait­ing For the Al­bino Dun­nock (it takes its ti­tle from an anec­dote about the great Welsh poet, bird­watcher and cler­gy­man RS Thomas), and Rosa­mond in per­son, are un­flinch­ingly re­al­is­tic about the fu­ture of the nat­u­ral world, and hu­man­ity. “Birds have been here much longer than us, af­ter all. They’re still close to di­nosaurs. It de­pends on how we be­have who falls off the branch first, and at the mo­ment we’re re­ally not mak­ing a suc­cess of it. The next thing will evolve and re­place us. We lack a wis­dom gene to pass on, so we end up start­ing from zero each time.” But de­spite the strength of its mes­sage, the book

Birds have been here much longer than us, af­ter all. They’re still close to di­nosaurs. It de­pends on how we be­have who falls off the branch first, and at the mo­ment we’re re­ally not mak­ing a suc­cess of it

is no po­lit­i­cal tract. Rosa­mond de­scribes the two years spent writ­ing it as “pure joy”, and that joy and sur­prise comes through in each of her en­coun­ters with birds. Its pres­ence is the most pow­er­ful ar­gu­ment of all for con­serv­ing what we have left. “When that epiphany hap­pened in Greece, I was ready for it. I re­alised that we miss how sim­ply beau­ti­ful birds are a lot of the time, and also their mys­tery. There’s a tran­scen­dent el­e­ment that we re­ally don’t un­der­stand. I had to find a way of ap­proach­ing that, so I wrote about beauty be­cause that af­fects you in a dif­fer­ent place. “Birds awaken the philoso­pher in me. I think we can be too nar­row-vi­sioned when we’re ar­gu­ing about ecol­ogy. “We’re in­ter­con­nected with ev­ery­thing – not masters of na­ture, and we need to feel that awe and won­der at some­thing we don’t un­der­stand. Great quan­tum physi­cists ad­mit the mys­tery in their field of study, and birds rep­re­sent that mys­tery for me. That draws me into writ­ing about it, about things that are be­yond our frame of con­scious­ness,” she adds. That re­spect for the un­know­able el­e­ments of na­ture also per­me­ates the book, and Rosa­mond is clear that at­tempts to cre­ate a wider in­ter­est in the nat­u­ral world and con­ser­va­tion shouldn’t come at its ex­pense. “I do have a big prob­lem with nat­u­ral his­tory pro­grammes, be­cause there’s just too much an­thro­po­mor­phism, and there’s also in­creas­ingly the at­ti­tude that na­ture is there to help us. It’s not, that’s facile. Writ­ers like Richard Mabey re­spect its in­dif­fer­ence. For me, the ‘cure’ is its beauty and its sav­age­ness. Na­ture is what it is.” Rosa­mond’s own bird­watch­ing starts at home, as she ex­plains: “I have a proper cot­tage gar­den. It looks gor­geous most of the year, and I get a good num­ber of birds. A neigh­bour gave me a bird list from 1976, and it’s al­most the same as now. I see Sky Larks in the fields up be­hind the cot­tage, too, but I think a lot of the coun­try­side, verges and open spa­ces are over­man­i­cured here, and reserves can turn into noth­ing much more than zoos.” Favourite bird­ing spots in­clude the Ouse Washes, for their “won­der­ful bleak­ness”, and Din­gle Marshes on the Suf­folk coast. “It’s bliss,” she says. “Last time I was there I saw things like Red-necked Grebe, and I kept put­ting up Shore Larks, or you can have chance en­coun­ters with Bearded Tits.” She en­joys, she says, the cross­ing of paths with bird­ers you’ll never see again, and the way other bird­ers will show you their finds through their scopes. Cur­rent favourite birds in­clude Short-eared Owls, although their near rel­a­tive the Long-eared Owl is one she longs to see. But rather like RS Thomas, she sees the search for, and some­times the ab­sence of, birds, as be­ing as im­por­tant as the ac­tual en­coun­ters with them. “Part of the plea­sure of bird­watch­ing is the habi­tat and place, and part of it is si­lence. A silent hide is a great thing.” That si­lence, she says, changed her life. It could change yours, too.

EPIPHANY Rosa­mond Richard­son’s love of birds was sparked by a visit to Greece in 2009 TORTOISE SEARCH Rosa­mond was look­ing for wild tor­toises, when she dis­cov­ered her love of birds!

LARK ASCENDING Sky Larks sing near Rosa­mond’s Es­sex cot­tage WOOD­CHAT SHRIKE A friend point­ing out Wood­chat Shrikes in Greece in­spired the bird­watcher in Rosa­mond

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